Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sandy Hook

If you're in New York City and the heat gets too much for you on summer weekends, consider taking a 40-minute ferry ride to Sandy Hook, N.J. The peninsula at the northern tip of the New Jersey Shore is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area under the auspices of the National Park Service.

Sandy Hook has five luxuriously wide beaches plus six miles of biking trails, fishing, wind surfing and a maritime forest with more American holly than anywhere else on the East Coast. The oldest lighthouse in America still in use is in Sandy Hook, with tours available on weekend afternoons. Birders love Sandy Hook, particularly during the spring and fall migrations. The New Jersey Audubon Society maintains a bird observatory there, with exhibits, bird walks, workshops, field trips and a bookstore (www.njaudubon.org/Centers/SHBO).

Because of its strategic location overlooking New York harbor, Sandy Hook was a military base for more than 200 years. The U.S. Army moved out permanently in 1974, but many of the old batteries remain — including fascinating Battery Potter, with its 20-foot-thick walls and steam-powered gun lift. The guns were supposed to pop up through the roof, fire and then disappear to safety. Battery Potter, completed in 1894, was obsolete even before it was finished — but the edifice is still something to behold.

The Fort Hancock Historic District is also interesting. The first of the yellow brick buildings went up in 1898, bordering a parade ground. The row of 18 officers' houses facing Sandy Hook Bay is particularly handsome. One of them is open as "History House," furnished as it would have looked in 1941. The details are perfect, from the "Victory Cookbook — Wartime Edition" lying on the kitchen counter to the copy of Modern Screen with a picture of Ingrid Bergman on the cover, on the living room coffee table.

The round-trip ferry ride leaving from the South Street Seaport in Manhattan costs $32 for adults on the Circle Line Downtown (www.circlelinedowntown.com) or $33 on Seastreak (www.Seastreak.com), with discounted prices for children. The Circle Line Downtown offers three round trips a day on Saturdays and Sundays, Seastreak, two. You can buy food and water at Sandy Hook, but they are expensive and the food is just OK — so bring your own, plus plenty of sunscreen. Free shuttle buses circle the park at intervals, but bicycles would be even more convenient. There's no charge to bring your bike on the Circle Line Downtown ferry. On Seastreak, bikes cost $6 to transport, round-trip.

For more information: www.nps.gov./gate